A temporary condition -- such as breathing dry air, dehydration or mouth breathing due to a stuffy nose -- is often to blame for occasional throat dryness. A persistently dry throat, however, may indicate something more serious. A variety of conditions and situations can cause a dry throat, some more serious than others. Although it may seem like a relatively minor problem, it's important to see your doctor if you experience a dry throat frequently or persistently.
The lining of the nose and throat contain mucus-secreting cells that keep the tissue moist. If you're breathing unusually dry air, however, lack of moisture could lead to a dry, irritated throat. This situation is common in arid areas, such as the desert Southwest. Heated indoor air in the wintertime can cause a similar effect. Exercising in dry air is particularly likely to cause throat dryness as you're breathing rapidly, often through your mouth.
Smoking and vaping can also dry the throat. Breathing hot smoke from a cigarette, cigar, pipe or another smoking device has a drying effect on the throat. Vaping does not involve heated smoke, but the chemicals in the vapor can also be drying. Other chemical fumes and pollutants might also leave you with a dry, irritated throat.
Air is normally inhaled through the nose and passes through the throat before entering the lungs. This pathway enables warming and humidification of the air. Mouth breathing bypasses the nose, which can lead to cooler, drier air reaching the throat and lungs, potentially causing a dry throat -- along with other unpleasant problems such as bad breath and tooth decay. Mouth breathing is most often due to a blockage of the nasal airways. Common culprits include:
-- head cold
-- nasal allergies
-- growths in the nose, such as nasal polyps
-- deviated or thick nasal septum
-- enlarged tonsils
Dehydration and Medical Treatment Side Effects
A dry mouth and throat are predictable symptoms of even mild dehydration, which is defined as a 1 to 5 percent deficit in body water. You might notice difficulty swallowing due to this dryness, along with throat irritation. Although this explanation may seem too simple, mild dehydration is very common -- especially among young children and seniors during the hot summer months. Drinking too much alcohol can also lead to next-day dehydration and throat dryness.
Medication side effects represent another commonly overlooked cause of dry throat. Radiation treatment for head and neck cancer also frequently causes chronic dryness of the mouth or throat. More than 400 drugs are know to potentially cause a dry mouth and throat, including:
-- blood pressure medicines
-- drugs used to treat anxiety
-- Parkinson disease medication
-- water pills
-- drugs to treat overactive bladder
Adults produce 0.5 to 1.5 liters of saliva daily, which is secreted by the salivary glands at a fairly constant rate This fluid keeps both the mouth and upper throat moist. Decreased saliva production causes dryness of these areas, which can be severe. A number of disorders can reduce saliva production. For example, Sjogren syndrome is an autoimmune disease that damages the salivary glands and causes a dry throat and mouth. Cancer of the salivary glands or stones that block the secretion of saliva are also possible causes.
Next Steps and Cautionary Notes
Some extra water or a humidifier is sometimes all you need to relieve a dry throat. However, there are potentially serious causes and consequences of persistent or frequent throat dryness. The best course of action is a visit to your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Seek immediate medical attention if you or a loved one may be suffering from severe dehydration. Signs and symptoms include dizziness, fainting, lack of sweating, confusion and a rapid heart rate.
Reviewed, revised and updated by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.